Capsule Wardrobe


Article by Jordan Emmons

Having spent the past five years working in fashion retail, my closet has been a revolving door of high-quality, beautiful pieces that I’ve been lucky enough to get at a discount. The good thing about this is I never have to worry about not having the right thing to wear for pretty much any occasion. The bad thing is I have a little too much of a good thing.

I’d been living a life where keeping up with current trends was key and adding new pieces into my wardrobe was constant. The general rule has been to never wear the same outfit twice. It’s been fun, and I am not ungrateful for the privilege I’ve been afforded, but my lifestyle and my current closet are not as married as they used to be.

For one, I no longer work on the public side of retail — I work in retail display, so my new uniform is paint-stained t-shirts and yoga pants. On my days off, I’m either at home (usually also wearing tees and sweats) or out and about in jeans and sneakers.

My sense of style has also changed over the years. I used to gravitate toward bright colors and prints, and now I skew toward greys and neutrals. Last summer I was wearing skirts and dresses nearly every day; this summer, I didn’t wear a single skirt all season. While it’s fun to look back on the things I used to wear and how I used to portray myself, it’s less fun to realize I have a closet full of clothes that don’t reflect who I am. I’ve held on to clothes that I haven’t worn in ages, and a lot of what I own isn’t really “me.”

// Enter the concept of the Capsule Wardrobe.

Capsule wardrobes first came on the scene in London in the 1970s, and they were introduced in America through Donna Karan’s “Seven Easy Pieces” in the mid 80s. Thanks to several years of online content from internet influencers, capsule wardrobes are now a part of mainstream conversation.

Capsule Wardrobe

Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieves collection – AP Photo, Suzanne Vlamis

Here’s the basic idea: your closet should contain fewer pieces that can be mixed and matched into interchangeable outfits, so each item is a “favorite” that you wear with more frequency instead of having a lot of clothes that you never wear.

If I was going to commit to the capsule wardrobe life, I wanted to make sure I did it right, and it led me into an internet k-hole of capsule wardrobe content. I quickly discovered it was going to be easier said than done.

I first explored Project 333, a popular system for streamlining your wardrobe. Its goal is to create a three month capsule with 33 items or less. I jumped in with both feet and made it my mission to completely purge my closet. I failed miserably.

The first problem I encountered was my location – I live in the Midwest. We don’t have three-month seasons here. It’s currently pre-fall, where it’s 60 degrees when you wake up and 80 degrees when you leave work. We have “real” fall for a few weeks, then we skip over to sub-zero winters, followed by cold/rainy/muddy spring, then “real” spring for a grand total of 30 seconds, then death-like heat in the summer. Creating a capsule wardrobe by “season” in this environment may be possible, but I was not prepared for the challenge of limiting myself to 33 pieces while still accounting for all the layers we require to compensate for flighty weather patterns.

It was one thing to put the 33-piece limitation on just my clothes, but Project 333 requires your capsule to include accessories, jewelry, outerwear, and shoes. If I was going to downsize my closet I wanted the freedom to express myself through my jewelry. Shoes, for me, are determined by occasion, not entirely by season. And outerwear? Where I live, I might need a spring jacket one week and a parka the next.

I also wasn’t happy with the idea of getting rid of clothes just for the sake of meeting an arbitrary numerical requirement. I had read about other capsule wardrobe systems that stuck to 37 or 38 pieces, and they all had rationale and methodologies behind it, but the whole thing felt a bit suffocating. I wanted fewer clothes, but making the shift from my ready-for-anything wardrobe of excess to having less than 40 pieces was a bridge too far for me.

I figured I had to give up my capsule dreams, but as it turns out there are many other people who find the rigidity of 33 pieces to be more stressful than helpful and have adopted a “simply have less” approach.

I discovered The Capsule Project, which provides a “closet bootcamp” to streamline your wardrobe. The approach isn’t about limiting yourself to a specific number of pieces, but merely creating a system to determine what your favorite pieces are, how often you wear them, and whether they are crucial enough to your life to keep or whether it’s time to let them go.

This was the answer. Over the years, my shopping patterns hadn’t been the most effective; I made impulse purchases that turned out to be duds and I bought things I knew I needed but ended up never wearing. Then there were the pieces that were once well-loved and worn but had been sitting in my closet for a while because they just weren’t my style anymore. The Capsule Project helped me identify what I like and what I want from my clothes, where the gaps in my wardrobe are, and how to live with less without feeling like it’s a sacrifice.

// Here are some key tips I’ve learned:

[1] Purge your wardrobe by category and by season. Summer is winding down, so I just went through my sandals and shorts to determine what I wore and what I didn’t, and what I might want to purchase for next year.

[2] Even if something is in perfect condition, that’s not a justification to keep it. I was raised to wear things until they became unwearable because it’s a “waste of money” to get rid of something just because I don’t like it. It’s just as much of a waste of money (and a waste of space) to keep something in my closet that I don’t enjoy and don’t wear.

[3] The “one in, one out” rule really works. If I make a clothing purchase, I have to make sure I also get rid of something. The goal is to never take in more than I already have, and to always strive to reduce.

While this entire process has been an exciting, exploratory experience, I’ve been hesitant to talk about it with too many people because there is often a sense of elitism tied to it. “Living with less” can come across as holier-than-thou, and it’s important to acknowledge the privilege tied to it. It was a privilege to be able to have much, and it is an equal privilege to have less by choice. I don’t take for granted the fact that I have the ability to choose how many clothes I own, and many people don’t have that choice.

Photo by Christopher Patey

I have also been hesitant to call what I’m doing a “capsule wardrobe” because it doesn’t exactly fit the profile. I don’t associate myself with the minimalist movement. I’m not reducing my closet size for any ethical reason. I’m not limiting myself to a specific number of items.

At the end of the day, a capsule wardrobe is about creating a curated closet that is tailored to you – your personality, your lifestyle, your needs. It doesn’t have to be strict. It doesn’t have to be a crusade for humanity. For me, I’m just tired of that “closet full of clothes but nothing to wear” feeling. I want getting dressed to be easier. I want my clothes to be more functional in my life.

Clothes are how we express ourselves and show people who we are. I am a constant work in progress and my wardrobe reflects that, changing and developing right along with me.

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